07/22/2009 11:45AM

Del More


Del Mar opens for its 70th season by the sea this afternoon, a run interrupted only by World War II when for about three years the track was used for a variety of military purposes. And that's all the nostalgia you're getting out of me, at least this time around, because these days, more than anything else, Del Mar is all about what's next.

Del Mar used to enjoy calling itself the Saratoga of the West. That was back when folks in California knew Saratoga from Delaware Park. Now, for all but the hopelessly homesick, Saratoga has been pretty much reduced for Californians to a series of rain-swept August images on a satellite betting feed, a boat floating in a lake and horses being saddled under very large trees. The trees are nice.

In truth, Del Mar offers no easy comparisons. It has evolved into a model impossible to duplicate. Its property, leased from the state, is protected from the rollercoaster real estate market (ignore the silly idea that the Gubernator wants to put the land up for sale to help save his budget). The structure of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club requires no pandering to stockholders. Its meet of just seven weeks is brief enough so that any business downturns are far from disastrous. And the beachy, health-crazed environment distracts both visiting fans and participants from their normal routines back home. As a racing institution Del Mar is a place other places can never be.

What Del Mar needs to become, sooner than later, is nothing less than the Santa Anita of the South. Playtime is over. The looming closure of Hollywood Park will open the California racing calendar to a revolutionary realignment. Del Mar's place in that new alignment can be one of major significance, or it could completely cede power to whoever buys Santa Anita and tuck itself safely into its own little corner, raising its head only to wonder aloud, "Who wants another margarita?"

What would happen, though, if California horse racing awoke on Jan. 1, 2011, or even 2012, to a landscape that looked like this:

Jan. 1 through Memorial Day - Santa Anita Park runs four days a week.

Mid-June through Labor Day - Del Mar runs five days a week.

Mid-September though Thanksgiving weekend - Oak Tree Racing Association at Santa Anita runs four days a week.

December - no live major Thoroughbred racing in Southern California. It's Christmas, for Pete's sakes.

Add to this equation a Del Mar that would remain open for training year-round. Turn the place into a 12-month operation geared toward the encouragement of participation and investment in the sport. Other than the abused and abandoned Hialeah, Del Mar is the most under-utilized asset in the business. Those days need to end.

Yes, it will be difficult. Del Mar's dates are squeezed on both sides by traditional California fairs with powerful political clout. Del Mar's nominal landlord is an agricultural association, and the facility finds itself playing host to any number of gun shows and boat shows and flower shows in addition to the annual Del Mar Fair. Well, fine. They can keep their gun shows - have them in March, when hunting season starts (I'm just guessing here) - and the boats and flowers, too. But make horse racing the core product.

The management of Del Mar knows how to run a boutique meet, but they sometimes suffer needless glitches from too little practice. Sitting dormant for 45 weeks a year is a way to get rusty fast. A much longer meet and year-round training presence would take care of that.

Furthermore, one of the most encouraging aspects of Del Mar is a board of directors packed with brilliantly successful businessman who also just happen to love horse racing, men like Terrence Lanni, Jon Kelly and Marty Wygod. It might be time to take those big dogs off the lease and let them hunt for a new way to be Del Mar.